Today is Disability Awareness Day, or the official day of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities. While often disability is associated with the wheelchair graphic we are accustomed to, the term disability does not just encompass physical disabilities—disability can be divided down into the following categories:
- Physical disability – Physical disabilities affect a person’s ability to move in some way. One or both arms or one or both legs, or a combination, can be affected. People may use mobility aids, including prosthetic limbs, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, or crutches to move, and other devices to assist with daily tasks relevant to the parts of their body affected, such as for writing, dressing, feeding, etc.
Examples of physical disabilities may be amputations, spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or stroke—just to name a few.
- Intellectual disability – Intellectual disabilities affect a person’s cognitive development and learning (but are different from learning disabilities!). People with intellectual disabilities may learn activities crucial to daily living later than is typical—including speech, physical movement skills, socialization, reading, writing, and much more—or struggle with these activities throughout their entire lives. Intellectual disabilities are most often congenital (present at birth or in very early childhood) but can be onset anytime before age 18, and may be caused by a genetic condition, problems during pregnancy or birth, or head injury in early childhood.
Examples of intellectual disabilities include Down syndrome (genetic), fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (environmental—in utero), and Fragile X syndrome (genetic). Autism is also classified as an intellectual disability, however, not all individuals with autism identify as having a disability, but rather a variability—especially as diagnostic criteria for intellectual disability requires an IQ below 70, and many with autism have normal or high IQs.
- Learning disability – Learning disabilities affect a person’s learning in a specific area due to neurological differences in a person’s brain. People with learning disabilities usually struggle in a particular area, such as reading, writing or math, but these struggles affect multiple areas of a person’s life. People with learning disabilities usually have high IQs despite their disability.
Examples of learning disabilities include dyslexia (reading/writing), dysgraphia (writing), dyscalculia (math) and nonverbal learning disability (affecting socialization, reasoning, interpreting body language and tone of voice, and much more).
Note that while Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) accompanies many learning disabilities, it is not a disability in itself. (While I also have learning issues, as a person with ADHD, I have mixed feelings on this based on how ADHD impacts my life!)
- Sensory disability – Sensory disabilities can include loss of any of the five senses, though lack of physical feeling may be classified as a physical disability. The most common sensory disabilities are visual impairment and hearing loss, though (as below) individuals who are Deaf may not consider themselves to have a disability.
Examples: Visual impairment/low vision, blindness, hearing loss, anosmia (no sense of smell), taste disorders.
Additionally, the following may be classified as disabilities depending on the severity of their impact on an individual’s life, or the person’s perception of their disability:
- Hearing loss – Individuals who cannot hear but identify as Deaf (with a capital D signifying identification with the Deaf community rather than simply being deaf), do not perceive that their inability to hear as a disability. Learn more about Deaf culture here, noting that the Deaf community also includes hearing members.
- Autism – Individuals with autism, as stated above, may identify as “autistic”—simply seeing their autism as a characteristic of diversity like eye color, rather than a disability.
- Speech and Language Disorders
- Chronic disease
Remember, a person can have one disability, several disabilities, or a chronic disease that is severe enough to be considered a disability under the law, and may not easily fit into one of these categories. It is important to be mindful that disability isn’t always obvious—and, many of us with disabilities do not see our disabilities as negative aspects of ourselves either! Be polite and courteous if you ask us about our disabilities, and understand that we may not want to answer—and, if you think someone needs help, please ask before providing assistance: say “Hi, would you like some help with [action]?”—if the person says no, that’s okay, go on with your day! If they say yes, then ask them “How can I help?” before doing anything further, such as making physical contact with the person or their mobility device—they will tell you the best way to help them, and ask for further help if they need it!
When discussing disability, always be mindful that as we can only fully understand our own circumstances—don’t assume anything about a person’s experience with or perception of their disability, or the disability of a family member or friend. Diversity includes disability, too!